The Iowa men's basketball team looks to avoid an 0-2 start in conference play, but it won't be easy

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Tyler Cook looks to score against Wisconsin on Friday. Photo by Jeff Yoder

Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Even with Friday’s 72-66 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener at home, it seems pretty apparent that the Iowa men’s basketball team has improved from last season.

That is especially true on defense where Iowa has gone from being a sieve last season to respectable this season.

Those who vote in the polls obviously have bought into Iowa, which climbed to the 14th in this past week’s Associated Press Poll.

So times are pretty good right now, and yet, Iowa is at risk of digging the same early hole that it dug last season when it lost its first two Big Ten games in early December to Penn State at home and at Indiana and then never recovered.

In order to prevent that from happening again, the Hawkeyes will have to win at Michigan State on Monday, and that is never an easy task, considering Iowa had lost 18 consecutive games in East Lansing, Mich., before ending that dubious streak in 2016.

Michigan State also has won 11 of the last 13 games in the series, so the odds will definitely be stacked against Iowa on Monday.

The Spartans always seem to be ranked among the Big Ten elite and this season appears to be more of the same.

From the impact of legendary coach Tom Izzo to the talent and experience that Michigan State has on its roster to the hostile environment inside the Breslin Center, Iowa will face a daunting task on Monday.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s also encouraging at the same time, we’re right there against another very good ranked and we’ve just got to figure a way to seal the deal,” Iowa junior forward Tyler Cook said after the Wisconsin loss, which lowered Iowa’s record to 6-1 overall. “It’s early. We’re 6-1. We go back to the drawing board and we’ve got another good opportunity to bounce back on Monday against Michigan State.”

Cook is right in calling the Michigan State game another opportunity because it will be an opportunity for Iowa to earn a signature conference win on the road, and to avoid digging an early hole.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cook scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against the Badgers, but he just didn’t have enough help, especially on the perimeter.

Junior point guard Jordan Bohannon entered this season on course to shatter all of Iowa’s 3-point shooting records, but his shot has mysteriously been off target this season.

The former Linn-Mar star is barely shooting 30 percent from 3-point range, having made just 11-of-36 shots from behind the arc.

Bohannon voiced his frustration after the Wisconsin loss.

“If I could fix it I would,” Bohannon said. “It’s pissing me off. I don’t know what’s going on.”

It’s hard to see this Iowa team accomplishing anything special without Bohannon being a force from 3-point range because there is no other player on the team that you would call a force from behind the arc.

Monday’s game will be Michigan State’s first home game since a 101-33 win over Tennessee Tech on Nov. 18. The Spartans are 3-0 at home this season having won all three games by 21 points or more (Florida Gulf Coast, Louisiana-Monroe, and Tennessee Tech).

Michigan State’s two defeats have come by a combined nine points. The Spartans lost by five to Kansas in the season opener in Indianapolis and four at Louisville in overtime.

The Spartans won their conference opener Friday evening at Rutgers, 78-67.

Point guard Cassius Winston and forward Nick Ward combined for 42 of Michigan State’s 78 points, with 22 and 20, respectively.

Monday’s game will feature the Big Ten’s top two offensive scoring teams as Michigan State averages 86.9 points per game, while and Iowa averages 82.6 points.

It wouldn’t be a crisis if Iowa started 0-2 in conference games, especially since the Big Ten has expanded to playing 20 conference games.

But it would be a concern because a loss at Michigan State would be Iowa’s 16th loss in its last 20 Big Ten games dating back to the last season when the Hawkeyes finished 4-14 in the conference.

A loss at Michigan State also might cause some to wonder if Iowa's 6-0 start was fool's gold or a mirage.

Iowa's best victory on paper was against then-No.14 Oregon in the semifinals of the 2K Empire Classic in New York City. But the Ducks are just 4-3 right now, so it appears they were overrated. 

It also is worth noting that Iowa will play three of its final four Big Ten games on the road at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

That is a potentially brutal stretch that could inflict a lot of damage to Iowa’s postseason resume, even more so if Iowa starts Big ten play in a hole.

 

Iowa vs. Michigan State

When: Monday, 5:30 p.m.

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.

TV: FS1

All-time series: Michigan State holds a 73-55 advantage over Iowa in the series. The Spartans have won 11 of the last 13 meetings, dating back to 2011. Iowa snapped a nine-game losing skid in 2015, sweeping the season series. Michigan State edged the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, 96- 93, in last season’s only meeting. The Spartans hold a 44-18 advantage in games played in East Lansing. Iowa snapped an 18-game losing streak at East Lansing, Michigan, with an impressive 76-59 win on Jan. 14, 2016, inside the Breslin Center last season. Iowa is 3-21 at the Breslin Center, which opened in 1989-90.